John Key, Barack Obama and the poisoned chalice of office

John Key and Barack Obama have more in common than you'd think. The main difference is that New Zealand's prime minister-elect has big shoes to follow

It was pretty tough being a political junkie and not actually in New Zealand for the election, especially as it produced the end of another Kiwi era. Distance does affect perspective, but even more so when New Zealand’s election was just days after the United States’. It didn’t so much end an era, as it blasted an imperial presidency into the stratosphere. Let’s face it, it was easy to get obsessed with distractions such as Sarah Palin, who defied the imaginations of even the best political satirists. No matter how hard Winston Peters tried, his efforts could not best Alaska Barbie who according to the “jerks” within her own campaign, thought Africa was a country, not a continent.

It seems to me that even through two years of campaigning the Americans stole every show. However many other elections were held around the world during that time – even Zimbabwe’s –  there was only one stage attracting constant attention, superficial as it may have been. There is much to be said for short sharp campaigns, especially if the contenders tend to crawl rather than run in the ‘run-up’ to an election. But the American show was unlike any other; crack politics, it surely was and now comes the withdrawal. However, given the disastrous state of the world’s economy some serious political potty training of the newbies has quickly begun.

In one of the fastest starts to transition seen in American history, Barack Obama has already been in to see the man his campaign consistently slagged. The early meeting – Obama’s first trip to the Oval office – was driven entirely by the financial meltdown, and as outgoing politicians so often do, George W. was working to paint himself in the most democratic of lights.

Bush was not Obama’s direct opponent, but the election was about him because of John McCain’s recent 95% pro-Bush voting record. He didn’t need to invite the Obamas to the Big House so soon, but he did and the greeting was not the awkward one it could so easily have been.

The fact is that for the sake of the Bush legacy, which is far from flash, the president at least had to appear to be urgently concerned about the mess he is handing over to the bright, young thing from the next generation, and he needed to do so well before the furniture vans pulled up on Pennsylvania Ave.

John Key also inherits a poison chalice, although not of the previous administration’s making. If anything he will be relieved the Michael Cullen's stewardship of the economy was as capable as it was, saving him from a repeat of the infamous Muldoon hand-over to Lange, which flicked on a nation fast going down the gurgler.

It’s an interesting exercise to look at Obama and Key as two young men (relative in Presidential/Prime Ministerial terms) and determine what they do or don’t have in common given their political ideologies are technically rooted in opposing camps. Both have sworn to be leaders of their entire nations, not just those who voted for them, which is of course pro forma. The alternative would be laughable. Both have promised to take care of the poor, who will be a growing constituency in their respective countries if economic predictions eventuate. Key says that's the job for any leader of a “decent society”. His contemporary across the Pacific is reading from the same ‘soul’ book. Neither personally wallowed in the gutters during their campaigns, but they both had an ample supply of troops to do that for them, so as to save their boyishly innocent selves.

Obama has the mortgage on charisma – although mortgage is currently a dirty word in the US. Key comes across as a nice guy whose oratory is never going to set the world on fire, but he’s been promoted as the self-made rich guy who knows how to sort out a recession. In keeping with scale, Obama brought in Warren Buffet as his self-made rich guy who knows a thing or twelve about investment strategies. (Memo to John – don’t make comparisons). They both hope tax cuts for the middle classes will stimulate the economy, Key adamant such an election promise can be afforded although it may not be as deep a cut as he’d have liked.

Obama has to wait before he can pronounce on such details because like everything else about the US election, the transition is appropriately long. Janurary 20 must seem like an eternity away given the urgency of all that is swirling about him.

These two guys have both pulled off decisive victories and now have to figure out how to pay for the promises. Key has made a seriously tough call to ditch any idea of a formal coalition – he’s seen the costly fiasco of having ministers outside the cabinet calling shots but being accountable to no-one. Explaining that former arrangement to my politically savvy Canadian election-watchers has been quite some feat. Obama is trying to work out how to deal with Joe Lieberman without making him a hero or a victim for his constant backing of McCain, despite having always voted with the Democrats on social issues. On par perhaps with what to do with the Maori Party or Roger Douglas… you may need them some time in the future, better inside the tent and all that.

One thing I must say is that John Key will not face the serious garbage that is coming Obama’s way from Republicans. As they lick their wounds they need to vent, and wow, are they letting loose. North American television has politics wall to wall, 24-7 as they say, so there is ample opportunity for anyone who has had anything to do with any campaign to have their 15 minutes – or less. Possibly most galling are those railing about what Obama can and cannot do with the annihilated economy he has inherited. Talkbacks are full of new and defeated ‘champions of the people’ vowing to hold Obama to his campaign promises, scaring the electorate about the hold the Democrats have over the Senate and Congress, and essentially crying that he must wipe up their mess properly or be forever held a liar. Hmmmm, what could be wrong with their tears and protestations. In En Zed, surely such a carry on would be met with the derision it deserves.

So, the baton changes. Key has been phoned by hopeful young things like Britain’s David Cameron, and the already-in-charge young things like Kevin Rudd. Obama has been phoned by Nelson Mandela... need I mention anyone else? The first phase is over and the hopes of both nations now rest on the relatively slim shoulders of two intelligent young men. They have young families – Obama’s being promised a puppy when they move to the White House. Key’s kids are probably beyond the puppy stage, but there’ll be promises to be sure, even if just for new gear. As Key said himself, and Helen Clark knows from inflicting and now from receiving, there are no silver medals in the political race. But wow, what a race she has run.

Helen Clark stands as the critical difference between Barack Obama and John Key because she has been a formidable prime minister and did not go into that cold night for reasons of incompetence. Obama trounced Bush in so many ways it would be boring to count – yet only 61.2% of eligible voters bothered to turn out. Obama doesn't have to so much step into Bush's shoes, but replace the combat boots with the slippers of diplomacy.

Key, without taking anything from the man, has much to prove as a top politician but the one thing he can rest easy on is that Clark’s boots, while figuratively big and made for stomping, were thankfully never exactly high in the heel department.